If John McCain runs strongly for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008 and the Democrats also find a genuine reformer, then we could be poised for one of those periodical reform moments that I described in The New Progressive Era. In years like 1912 (and to a lesser extent, 1974-6), Americans have supported reforms in the public interest or for the common good.
By the way, there is nothing wrong with sticking up for your own interests or those of your group. In fact, we need disadvantaged people to advocate on their own behalf. However, democracy tends to neglect goods that really are in everyone’s interests, because such goods are not especially important to any particular group. Public goods don’t have PACs. Examples include a balanced budget, competitive elections and high turnout, freedom of information, and the rule of law. Fortunately, when American governments do serious damage to these goods over many years, reform movements sometimes arise that emphasize changes in the political process to promote good government and democracy.
Although John McCain has some beliefs and commitments with which I personally disagree, he stands for a robust version of procedural reform, including tighter regulation of campaign finance, more fiscal responsibility, tax simplification, federalism, and less “corporate welfare.” If he is smart, McCain can tie his version of reform to genuine conservative values while appealing to diverse Americans with arguments about the public interest.
Ideally, a major Democratic candidate would vie with McCain for the reform mantle, but with a slightly more “progressive” twist. While fiscal responsibility and federalism do serve the common good, a Democratic reformer could put more emphasis on deliberate efforts to empower ordinary people politically. In fact, the full list of needed procedural reforms is quite long, and it would be great if both campaigns scrambled to claim them:
McCain is obviously the Republican reform candidate, the Teddy Roosevelt of our time. It’s less clear who represents the Democrats’ strongest reformer, the Woodrow Wilson of 2008. Senator Feingold has reform credentials and enough personal integrity, but I’m not sure at this point that he has a chance for the presidential nomination. Several other potential candidates (especially governors) could develop a robust reform agenda if they started now.